“I better join the socialist movement until I find a union”

Longtime socialist and trade unionist Chris Townsend recalls joining the socialist movement and passes on the lessons of William Z. Foster about the importance of the labor movement. 

Like a few million kids at the time, I exited high school in 1979 and went straight into the working grind. That’s what all of us were taught was the goal in life. It was your fate. Members of my family had worked for one of the big northeast railroads, but by the time I was nearing eighteen, those railroads were in collapse along with much of the old economy. There would be no future for me on the railroad, or in a mill, or in a factory.

It wasn’t an opportune time for yet another unskilled worker to join the millions of unemployed who roamed every corner of the country in search of a job — any job. I don’t recall what the official unemployment rate was in my home state of Pennsylvania at the time, but I do remember crowds of desperate men and women jamming the front doorways of every employer who had advertised a job or two in the newspaper want-ads. The hapless and rightward-drifting Carter regime stumbled along in the late seventies as the economy sank further and further, with his re-election chances steadily declining with it. The system was sputtering badly and it made it clear that it didn’t need or want me, or my labor.

As my future prospects evaporated I was fortunate to have figured out that while the setup didn’t need me, I didn’t need it either. I joined the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1977, and through that lens, I was able to figure out why the system did what it did to working people. DSOC was not a particularly radical organization, but DSOC worked diligently to rally the scattered remnants of a socialist and social democratic movement that was in steep decline as the 1960s radicalization fizzled out. So it seemed to me that even if my prospects as a worker in those circumstances were pretty bleak, I still had better join the socialist movement until I could find a union to join. So I did.

Joining the socialist movement at that time where I lived was a long-distance and solitary affair. The first socialist meeting of any kind that I was able to attend was the DSOC youth section meeting in late 1979 in western Pennsylvania. And that was a full two full years after I had first enrolled. It was near enough that I could get there so I hitchhiked and went. I didn’t know a single person who might be there, and the minimal agenda published in the DSOC bulletin had little in the way of inspiring detail. Nonetheless, I was excited to go. That DSOC meeting more than 40 years ago is apparently forgotten, since nothing happened that was particularly memorable. But the fact was that the movement kept going. DSOC held a young socialist meeting even when the chips were down and there were few near-term prospects of any kind of socialist renewal, let alone transformation.

[Editor’s note: Michael Harrington’s keynote address to the 1979 DSOC youth section, which Townsend recorded, can be listened to here.]

When I finished the long walk from the road into the camp where the conference was held I realized pretty quick that the one hundred or so young attendees were almost all college students. While others filled-in their registrations with the exciting names of brand-name colleges and universities I scribbled “unemployed” and took my place in the hall. The socialist leaders who were conducting the conference — Michael Harrington, Roger Robinson, and B. J. Widick among them — figured out on day two that among the crowd there were 7 or 8 of us who were workers, not students. So they hastily organized a sidebar meeting for us. We were a very junior and amateur bunch for sure. But those three spent several hours with us, and in the conversations they came back, again and again, to steer us into the labor movement. It was for me the first time I heard someone speak of “Foster.” It came with a curious yet cryptic disclaimer: “He was a Communist, but you need to study him and his work if you are going into the unions.” During the discussion, one of them passed around a copy of William Z. Foster’s book, American Trade Unionism. I diligently jotted down the address of the publisher so I could buy one.

We heard his story: Foster was a union organizer at heart, migrating from industry to industry as a young worker, starting countless drives. He ended up as a local official of the Railway Carmen’s Union. He was a stalwart foe of business unionism in all its destructive variations and an equal opponent of sectarian dual union adventures. Foster organized and led the first industrial union drive in the meatpacking industry. He was the architect of The Great Steel Strike of 1919. He laid the groundwork with his TUEL and TUUL formations for what would become the CIO in many of the mass production industries. And last but not least, Foster grew and evolved into the leading trade union leader of the Communist Party until his death in 1961. The political boundary of the discussions being reached, it was still apparent to me that Foster and his work was highly regarded and respected even by his political opponents.

Shortly after that meeting, I went to work as a municipal sanitation man and with my first big $85 dollar weekly paycheck bought a copy of American Trade Unionism. I still have it. Without any exaggeration, that book has been the single most influential and important book of my entire life in the labor movement. My trade union work and activism began almost from the start of my working life, and Foster’s analysis of business unionism and the need for mass organization of the unorganized still animates my work today. Over the years I would purchase any copy of the book I could find and share them out to young union organizers. Foster saw the working class as the engine of history, and he had bitter contempt for those who caved-in to the employers, misled the movement, profited off the unions, corrupted them, and who established business union dictatorships to blunt or squelch the militant impulses of the militant minority.

Foster’s 1947 American Trade Unionism book is a collection of articles from his fifty-plus year labor career covering just about every aspect of his life and work. Shortly after I was introduced to this volume it went out-of-print and was virtually lost. The internet has made some of Foster’s writings available to the new generation of labor radicals, but this valuable volume has been largely forgotten — until now. International Publishers has just reprinted American Trade Unionism and an entire new generation will now benefit from his counsel and observations. He wasn’t right about everything — few of us are — but his career as a labor radical and organizer is second-to-none.

I recommend American Trade Unionism to all serious union organizers, activists, and class-conscious workers. Buy one here.

We encourage readers to also check out Townsend’s “Letter to the Socialists: Old and New.”

Chris Townsend was a national staff member of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) for 25 years. He was a rank-and-file member of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and since 2013 has been the International Union organizing director.